Stone Column

Maintaining the heritage of Vermont slate

October 1, 2004
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In an age where advanced technology seems to be taking over the stone industry, there are still enclaves where raw skill and timeless production methods remain the best way to approach the craft of stoneworking. One of these regions is the slate belt of southern Vermont, where companies like Taran Brothers Slate Co. of Poultney, VT, are in their third generation of slate production.

The company was founded by Joseph Taran in the 1940s, and three of his grandchildren -- Stephen, Joe and Barbara -- all work at the company today. The first quarry was started on the original family homestead in North Poultney, VT, and initial success in the slate industry led Joseph Taran to leave the farming business in 1946. In fact, Stephen Taran said that a local newspaper printed in 1946 was recently discovered, and it contained an advertisement of Joseph Taran leasing his farm.

The company's main quarry site yields all the traditional varieties of regional slate except for red, which is quarried just over the Vermont border in New York State. Barbara Taran explained that certain veins in the main pit in Poultney carry different colors, and there are specific areas to be worked for shades of green, including sea green, as well as purple, mottled and strata gray.

During the quarrying process, workers first use track drills, and then they blast to free the stone. Taran prefers to use black powder rather than dynamite, because it causes less fracturing of the stone. After blasting, backhoes are used to collect the useable stone from the quarry site.

Once stone is taken from the quarry, it is processed at one of two plants -- one for roofing and flagstone production and one for tile and structural production. During roofing slate production, slabs are split by hand, and they are then cut into manageable pieces on a conveyor saw with two cutting heads and split by hand again to the thickness needed. Final sizing is done with traditional trimmers, which have been a mainstay within the industry for decades. Nail holes are added as needed, and the roofing slates are finally packaged for shipment. The most commonly requested size of roofing slate is 18-inch randoms, although a broad range of sizes are kept in stock.

Tiles are made from “rough stock,” which is essentially smaller slate slabs that do not make larger-size items, cutting down on waste and using as much of the stone as they can. The tiles are created through a series of grinding and sawing operations, and a broad range of tile sizes are produced by the company. Barbara Taran explained that the company always keeps a strong inventory of tiles in stock in several sizes, because its customers are always working on tight timeframes and do not want to inventory much stone. Among the sizes regularly kept in stock, 12- x 12-inch tiles are the top sellers for the company.

Overall, roofing products comprise 65% of the business, while tiles are 35% of production. In addition to roofing slate and tiles, byproducts of the production process are made into crushed stone for drainage or landscape applications. Also, random flagging is another option offered to the company's customer base.

The roofing plant and quarry has 20 workers, while the tile plant has six workers. Being located in the slate belt, Taran Brothers does not find it hard to hire people with experience, which is necessary due to the skill required to work with slate. “It's really a lost art, especially when it comes to splitting,” Barbara Taran said. To make sure the workers are secure, the company provides safety training for employees.

A large percentage of Taran Brothers' business is on the East Coast, which has a strong tradition in slate roofing, and the company also has customers in the Midwest as far away as Wisconsin and Montana.

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